Local bishop responds to latest sex scandal allegations

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Tonnos says he learned of Ontario abuse case when charges were laid

10 April 2010
Tyler Brownbridge, Guelph Mercury
 Mercury news services


The Roman Catholic bishop for the area that includes Waterloo Region, Guelph and Wellington County has issued a statement denying pre-police probe knowledge of a sex scandal that saw a Canadian priest defrocked by the pope last year. 

Most Rev. Anthony Tonnos, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hamilton, said in a statement issued Friday that he had no knowledge of the sexual abuse of minors by Bernard Prince until the former Pembroke Diocese priest was criminally charged in 2005. 

“Bishop Tonnos was greatly surprised to learn of those charges,” according to the release, distributed by the Hamilton diocese. The diocese covers an area from Hamilton in the south up to Tobermory. 

The Tonnos statement was issued in response to a media report Friday that asserts he and other church officials knew of allegations of sexual misconduct regarding Prince as far back as 1993. 

In January 2008, Prince was found guilty of sexually molesting 13 boys between 1964 and 1984. He was defrocked last May. 

Tonnos is among several Ontario bishops connected to an allegation that a year after a report recommending bishops should immediately contact police about claims of child sexual abuse by priests, they and the Vatican sat on news of this pedophile priest for more than a decade. 

In an extraordinary letter to the Vatican’s representative in Ottawa, sent in 1993, former Pembroke bishop Joseph Windle warned that five victims — most of them former altar boys — had reported being sexually abused by Prince. 

“Were he to be honoured in any way it could easily trigger a reaction among the victim(s), or others who are aware of his previous conduct, and this would prove extremely embarrassing both to the Holy See and to the Diocese of Pembroke, not to mention the possibility of criminal charges being laid and a civil suit ensuing,” Windle wrote. 

At the time, Prince was serving in Rome and potentially in line to be promoted or honoured. 

“One redeeming factor,” Windle noted, “is that it would appear that the victims involved are of Polish descent and their respect for the priesthood and the Church has made them refrain from making these allegations public or laying a criminal charge against a priest.” 

Reached at his home in Rome, the papal nuncio who received the letter about Prince said he remembered nothing about the matter. 

“I don’t remember anything and I don’t permit that we continue with this conversation,” said Archbishop Carlo Curis. Then, he hung up. 

The letter was filed this week as an exhibit in a civil suit and confirms allegations raised by one of the victims in late March. The 17-year-old letter is sure to add to the current controversy over fresh allegations of abuse and coverups that has sent the Vatican into damage control mode. 

Prince was promoted to the Vatican in 1991 and remained secretary general of the Vatican’s Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith until his retirement in 2004. While there, he became a friend of the late Pope John Paul II. 

Any further promotion of Prince, Windle wrote, “would have horrendous results and cause immeasurable harm.” 

Windle writes that several Ontario bishops who had been involved directly or indirectly with Prince were aware of the situation and would “most certainly agree in my assessment in this regard.” 

The bishops included then Archbishop of Toronto Aloysius Ambrozic. Windle wrote that Ambrozic had made it clear Prince would not be welcome in Toronto unless he underwent psychiatric treatment. 

In 1992, a year before the letter was written, a report by a committee of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops entitled “From Pain to Hope,” made 50 recommendations, including one that bishops should contact police if allegations of sexual abuse involve minors. 

At the time, the Catholic Church in Canada had been rattled by a string of abuse scandals at schools and institutions, including the Mount Cashel orphanage in Newfoundland. It was left up to individual bishops to decide which of the recommendations to implement in their diocese. 

A police investigation into Prince began in 2005. Prince pleaded guilty in 2008 to 12 charges of indecent or sexual assault and found guilty on a charge of indecent assault. He is currently in jail. 

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